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As we prepare to remember

November 2021 | by Mr John Surtees

This content has been sponsored by SASRA

During my five years of service in the Royal Air Force, I spent each Remembrance Sunday in uniform. These took place in a variety of contexts (on operations in Afghanistan, on exercise in Cyprus, or in full dress uniform back home in the UK), but each time the occasion would prompt the same thoughts. Thoughts of those who have given their lives down through the years are only natural. One of the most poignant experiences of my life was visiting the war cemetery at Arnhem as a 19-year-old. I found many gravestones etched with the words ‘aged 19’. Several years later, having completed a tour of Afghanistan, I visited the National Memorial Arboretum, where I found names that were known to me, names I was looking for, lives sacrificed in a very modern 21st century war.

As well as looking back, the season of Remembrance is an opportunity to look forward. In the past few weeks, some twenty years after 9/11, British troops were once again deployed to Afghanistan. This rapidly developing situation provoked a wide range of emotions and responses. It has been a difficult time for veterans who served in Afghanistan over the past twenty years, particularly for those who lost friends to the conflict, with many wondering what such sacrifice has ultimately achieved.

How should we think on these things? The National Memorial contains a wall with the names of members of the Armed Forces killed in action over the past few decades. But a huge portion of the wall is blank, space deliberately left for those who will be lost to future conflicts. As we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in years gone by, what is the appropriate reaction to those still serving, who each day face the possibility that in the future they may have to pay the same price?

Since leaving military service, it has been my privilege to work for the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA). SASRA is a missionary organisation that employs ‘Scripture Readers’ as missionary evangelists, taking the gospel of Jesus Christ ‘behind the wire’ to the men and women of our Armed Forces. These are typically young people, mostly from unchurched backgrounds, who find themselves perhaps for the first time considering the big issues of life and death and what lies beyond. SASRA Scripture Readers stand ready to share the hope of Christ with those who have never known him.

As the recent situation in Afghanistan escalated, soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade in Colchester and 3 Scots in Fort George found themselves readying to deploy with very short notice. Providentially, SASRA has Readers in both of these locations, ASR Lee McDade in Colchester and ASR Roddy Macleod in Fort George. Lee and Roddy were on hand, both before the troops left their bases as well as upon their return, to care for the spiritual welfare of these soldiers.

ASR Tracey Blackwell SOURCE SASRA
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The Army recognises that ‘spiritual welfare’ is a vital part of the moral component of fighting power. Whenever the Armed Forces deploy, our troops (many of whom are young people in their early 20s) have to make split-second decisions, often under intense pressure, that carry life and death consequences. What moral compass will they have to guide them? What better moral compass could we give them than the gospel?

As well as the very real possibility of loss of life or physical injury in war (and even in peacetime, soldiering remains a dangerous job), Armed Forces Personnel also have to deal with the long-term consequences of things that they have seen and done. PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and moral injury are all very real, and serving troops and veterans alike deal with these things every day. When we remember those who died, those who survived are often forgotten. It is an uncomfortable fact that the conflicts of the past 50 years bear not only the cost of those killed in action, but also those veterans who have taken their own lives at a later date.

Not all the experiences are so sombre, however. Both Lee and Roddy were soldiers who left the Army without hope and yet now find themselves as soldiers of Christ, standing ready to serve those who now serve where they once served.

Through the ministry of Scripture Readers, it has been our joy to see an encouraging number of young soldiers make professions of faith in Christ since the pandemic began. Scripture Readers have been able to come alongside service personnel and their families, providing support in the middle of a variety of complex situations, all the while pointing them towards the God of all comfort who is able to help those in times of need.

As we remember those who gave their lives in the past, how should Christians serve those who serve us in the Armed Forces, who may be called upon to give their lives in the future? What better service can we give them than to tell them the good news of Jesus Christ, who alone can provide eternal security and unshakeable hope?

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ASR Lee McDade
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Army Scripture Reader Lee McDade

Leaving the army as an angry young man, I made three statements:

I never wanted to be part of the military ever again, I never wanted to go to Germany ever again, and I wanted nothing to do with God or Christianity.

11 years later I found myself back in Germany, back in uniform as a saved man serving in the ranks of SASRA. God laughs at the plans of men!

I was influenced in becoming a Scripture Reader by what I saw happen in the Afghanistan campaign (2002–2014). I couldn’t bear the thought of young people going off to war without hearing the gospel, so in 2008 I joined SASRA to serve those who serve.

13 years later, I found myself once again praying for soldiers willing to put their lives on the line back in Afghanistan. Watching the troops deploy to Kabul was a very emotional experience, but also such a privilege – one I wouldn’t have had unless I had been behind the wire. Now that the troops are back, the work truly begins.

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Army Scripture Reader Roddy Macleod

On arriving at Fort George after summer leave, I was confronted with much activity. 3 Scots (The Black Watch) had been tasked to help with the evacuation from Kabul airport. It is a common feature of military life to be sent to dangerous situations, at times with short notice. In the busyness, I was able to make myself available to anyone that had a moment to chat. Seeing the seriousness on the faces of those more senior brought home the dangers they knew awaited them.

I spent my military service living in a rebellious way, without God and without hope. Even the dangerous situations I found myself in made no real impact on my soul. In the mercy of God, I later found a true hope which I love to share with military personnel. I love to be among soldiers, to tell them of their need and the God who longs to embrace them. It is a great privilege to be a guest of the military and to have the access that we do.

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SASRA produces resources to help churches run Remembrance Sunday services. For more information, please email [email protected]

John Surtees spent five years in the British Armed Forces and is now the Communications Officer for the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA).